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The Gurus


Ilaria Montagnani
Reebok and Equinox
Though her sword-wielding Forza class has become red hot since the opening of Last Samurai and Kill Bill, the Florentine knockout has been studying samurai-sword training and kickboxing since she quit college in Italy. “Martial arts was always my passion, but my mother only allowed me to do ballet and swim professionally,’’ she says. “As soon as I was old enough, I took up martial arts, studying four to five hours a day.’’ She still takes class, but now she teaches her famous “Power Strike’’ kickboxing and karate class at Reebok as well as Equinox, and she introduced Forza, which uses two-pound plastic or wooden swords. If that seems light, you try swinging them for an hour. Classes are free, but open to members only. Multiple locations;

Spin cycle: What Keith Veri, at Crunch, did to transform himself, he can do for you.  

Keith Veri
When Veri, who is five foot six, built like a spark plug, and seemingly in perpetual motion, was in the Marines, he could run three miles in eighteen minutes and do 35 pull-ups or 200 push-ups in two minutes. When he got out of the service, he stopped doing cardio and started eating 10,000 calories a day. At 22, he was 285 pounds and had a minor heart attack. So Veri devoted himself to spinning and kickboxing, and today, at a trim 170, he teaches 25 classes a week and trains 20 clients in between. He crafts rides using a D.J. program that lets him mix beats, or in this case, cadences, to match his intense climbs and interval programs. “I give the class heart-rate guidelines throughout, tell them when they should kick it and when they shouldn’t.” Veri is often sprinting from one Crunch location to another to teach again. Just as often, his students are sprinting with him. Classes are free for members, $24 for a day pass. Multiple locations; 917-620-3157.

Jennifer Kries
Soho Sanctuary
Kries took her first Pilates class at 13, three years before making her ballet debut with George Balanchine. In between the School of American Ballet and dancing in Europe, she studied with three of Joseph Pilates’s disciples and certified herself in the practice. Today, she heads up the Pilates, yoga, and dance programs at Soho Sanctuary. Art-world luminaries like Cecily Brown and Jessica Craig-Martin are devoted students, for good reason: Kries, tall and graceful and the artistic director of Contemporary Dance Theatre New York, is a great communicator when it comes to body mechanics. She teaches a fusion of all three disciplines that she calls the Method. “The combo gives you the most streamlined, proportional physique available,” says Kries. “Bodies trained that way, they define time. They defy gravity.” $22 for a single mat class, $125 for a private session. 119 Mercer Street; 212-334-5550.

The true believer: "It's not how well you perform," says Power Pilates's Bob Liekens. "It's how you apply it."  

Bob Liekens
Power Pilates and Equinox
Bob Liekens is on a mission to teach people Pilates the way Joseph Pilates intended. A former Merce Cunningham dancer, Liekens came to New York from Belgium in 1983 and, like many dancers, discovered Pilates as a way of stabilizing and strengthening his core and increasing his flexibility. He took sessions at the original and much-revered Pilates Studio with Romana Kryzanowska, began teaching there, and soon he was helping clients on the Pilates Reformer more often than he was on the stage. Three years ago, he came to Power Pilates, where he still teaches clients but mostly teaches the teachers. Liekens spends his days surrounded by women, but Joseph Pilates, he notes, intended his method for men. “Pilates was into boxing and martial arts. Dancers have softened it, made it graceful, but if you see archival footage of Joe, it was very percussive and vigorous.” Still, he’s quick to remind his students, “It’s not how well you perform on the Reformer, but how you take Pilates outside the studio and apply it.” Private classes are $62–$120 per hour; mat sessions are $15 per hour. Powerpilates, 49 West 23rd Street, tenth floor; 212-627-5852. Equinox, 521 Fifth Avenue, at 43rd Street; 212-661-9488.

The accidental yogi: Yoga took Stephanie Culen-Rolfe, at Equinox, in a new direction.  

Stephanie Culen-Rolfe
Culen-Rolfe, always lean and athletic, started dancing while in her twenties, trekking all over New York in search of ballet, jazz, and modern- dance classes. She danced every day and performed, too, but eventually life’s exigencies took over: She got a job in PR, went for a master’s in education at Sarah Lawrence, and found she didn’t have enough time to keep up her dancing. Yoga was what she took up in its place. One day the head of the Himalayan Institute, where she was studying, told her she was ready to teach. “I hadn’t even thought about doing that, but I suppose that was just the next step for me,’’ says Culen-Rolfe. She has since become Equinox’s top yoga instructor, specializing in Vinyasa, with constant movement from position to position. By day, she’s a librarian, teaching preschoolers at Christ Church Day School. Classes are free for Equinox members; her private sessions are $120 per hour. 917-309-7926;

Lois Nesbitt
Exhale and Virayoga
Even with the tenure market tight, few academics take the path of Lois Nesbitt, a Princeton Ph.D. in comparative modern French and English literature. These days, Nesbitt is an instructor in Anusara, the style of yoga that teaches innovative alignment techniques, making poses feel new again for even the most advanced students (it’s also rumored to be injury-proof). With her strawberry-blonde hair usually pulled into a neat, long braid, the mild Nesbitt presides over her classes at Exhale and Virayoga, the Soho studio of much-beloved surfer girl and yogi Elena Brower; her instruction is precise and methodical, the fruit of study both in and out of the library. “With all that time writing, I learned to articulate,” she says. “To see people brighten, soften, relax, and leave better than they came is gratifying.” $20 for classes at Exhale, 980 Madison Avenue, at 76th Street. $16 for classes at Virayoga, 580 Broadway, near Spring Street, eleventh floor; 212-989-9874; 917-975-8009. Nesbitt also teaches private classes in the Hamptons and organizes retreats; see

Susan Orem
Exhale and Om Yoga Center
If Susan Sarandon is ever cast as a yoga teacher, she’ll be Susan “Lip” Orem, a soulful yet strictly no-nonsense yogi at Exhale and Om Yoga Center, the Union Square school that teaches Cyndi Lee’s thoughtful mix of Vinyasa (aerobic) and Iyengar (alignment-based) methods. A former Off Broadway actress, “very successful waitress,” and onetime showgirl in the Middle East and Europe with the American Follies Las Vegas Revue, Orem also appeared as Diva the Clown in Barnum & Bailey’s Circus (“I was the oldest female clown, a dubious honor,” she says). In the nineties, she found herself the dinner-party-giving wife of a prominent businessman; she tried out a yoga class at Crunch because her knees were aching from aerobics. “I fell madly in love with yoga,” says Orem. Once she started teaching, her students fell in love with her attention to detail and her constant wisecracking; they call her by her nickname, which she declines to explain. “I felt the dharma had been stamped on my forehead,” she says. “This was what I was supposed to do.” Classes are $20 at Exhale, 980 Madison Avenue, at 76th Street; 212-249-3000; and $16 at Om, 826 Broadway, at 12th Street; 212-254-9642. Orem teaches private classes (from $125) and runs yoga retreats ($350) in upstate New York; call 917-697-0540 for information.

Some asana! Uma Saraswati, at Jivamukti. "I'm a bhakti. I want to give."  

Uma Nanada Saraswati
Though the massive Jivamukti Yoga Center, which has certified most of the trendiest (and, in many cases, the best) teachers in the city, has seen its reputation diminish in recent years, it is still attracting a crop of young yogis who embody the center’s blend of grungy downtown hip and ethereal Hindu spirituality. Among the best is Uma Nanada Saraswati, a 29-year-old former Hare Krishna (she left home at 18 to join) and an ex-wife of kirtan wallah Bhagavan Das (a major character in Ram Dass’s Be Here Now movement). With incense burning and Nina Hagen blaring, Saraswati incorporates serial chants, deft ethical sermons, and sweaty asana (movement) into her classes. “I’m a bhakti, not an intellectual,” she says. “I want to give.” Classes are $17. 404 Lafayette Street; 212-353-0214.

Barbara Verrochi
The Shala
Every yoga studio tries to provide a cozy atmosphere for its students, but free tea and altars to Ganesh canÂ’t compare with the Earth Mother presence (and a face that would make Bertolucci swoon) of Barbara Verrochi. Verrochi, along with talented yogi Kristin Leigh, is co-director of the Shala (it means “home” in Sanskrit), a loftlike studio near Union Square. A sculptor and former art teacher in New York City public schools, Verrochi teaches Vinyasa, a type of vigorous, flowing yoga, as her deep-pitched voice resonates like a gong, reminding everyone to meditate, breathe, and calm the hell down. Classes are $15. 815 Broadway, near 11th Street, second floor; 212-979-9988;


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